Our Sunday Best

For some of us, church isn’t church without freshly pressed slacks, a necktie tied pinned with a gold chain, and shoes pristinely shined. For others, church is more like church as they feel a cool breeze through the knee hole in their jeans with their flip flops smacking and pattering announcing their entry. The term “Sunday Best” has a wide range of connotations across the tapestry of the body of Christ. As I reflect on my time touring the civil rights monuments of the American south, this term took on a whole new meaning. This new definition comes from a set of two pictures.

“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie…all pressed up in black and white.” Justin Timberlake may have been trying to make the club a little classier with his 2013 hit “Suit & Tie” but long before one of Memphis’s favorite sons tried to bring it back, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was making it look good. It’s difficult to find a statue or picture of Dr. King in front of a crowd without his suit and tie. It was his suit of armor, a uniform of his vocation as a pastor, proof that whether he was behind the pulpit or in front a march, it was an act of worship.

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The fashion of the movement also became intertwined in the fabric of its protests. Downtown shopping districts in cities denying blacks their human rights relied on the profits of selling the freshest Sunday looks. In an act of protest, citizens of these cities would refrain from buying new church clothes to send a powerful blow to an economy that was supporting systems of oppression across the south. Church clothes became a way of communicating power. They, also, became a way of communicating that the cause of civil rights was a worthy one. Which leads us to the first picture.

Sprawled across the steps of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, dozens of civil rights leaders the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and many more stood tall adorned in crisp suits and dresses. Looking at the picture you might assume the group was about to turn around and enter the sanctuary for a vibrant holiday church service. In reality, this crowd was prepared for a date with a prison cell. They were turning themselves in to the police, a situation many of them were familiar with throughout the marches and protests that helped define the movement. They gladly went to jail for their rights and the rights of their sisters and brothers. This was an occasion that called for their Sunday best. It is a picture filled with dignity, honor, and hope. The second picture is a different story.

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“Daddy let me watch from his shoulders,” is etched across the sculpture of a fancy hat in a style you might see in an episode of Mad Men. The others in the collection feature similar sentiments. One hat boasts about being excused from school. Another describes packing a picnic. To the right of the hats are a series of screen printed ties. Printed on each one is a group of people decked out in their Sunday best. Hats, ties, smiling children on shoulders, and a fresh picnic packed with all the summer favorites, this is the second picture. As the art exhibit seen at the Rosa Parks Museum explains, this was a common scene at a lynching.

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Letters on the wall explain that the time between the decades prior to the turn of the 19th century and on through the late 60’s saw thousands of known lynchings. Black people were hung from trees, burned, beaten to death, etc. for charges such as talking to the wrong person, eating at the wrong restaurant, or trying to register to vote. As informal mobs brutalized human beings, thousands would gather to watch with smiles and laughter all while wearing their Sunday best. Isn’t it interesting that these spectators were covered by layers of fine clothing, but they stand in that crowd exposed for future generations to see? No amount of expensive material can hide evil from God’s sight.

Throughout church history, high priests and pastors often wore elaborate outfits for everything from holidays to your average Sunday. Some were prescribed by scripture like that of Old Testament temple priests. When it came time for Jesus to enter the scene, though, he saw that these ceremonial clothes had become a way of trying to hide the sins of the religious elites like the Pharisees. Looking at Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Not long after, Jesus was beaten, stripped naked, and hung upon what scripture often calls a tree. He became clothed in all of our darkness, guilt, and shame and died for our sins. Then he rose, conquering death and assuring that we would have access to eternal robes of righteousness.

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As I look at both of these pictures, I need to cling to the robes Jesus has wrapped me in. It was humans that stood in those lynching crowds with smiles on their faces. It was humans that hit children with high powered fire hoses and vicious dogs. It was humans that sent a pastor and a seamstress to prison for trying to live with dignity. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil even while wearing the nicest threads. I am human and the painful past of America is terrifying to me because it reminds me that I am capable of evil.

Fortunately, Jesus redefined our Sunday best and established his own high fashion. He sees our broken heart behind anything we try to cover it with and offers us his love anyway. He not only covers us with his Sunday best but gives us the ability to clothe others in his love. Jesus saves me from evil and inspires me towards good. In stripping down their victims, the people in those horrific lynch mobs exposed their own sinful hearts that will define their history. Jesus’s robes of righteousness defined Dr. King’s legacy and I pray they’ll also define mine.

 

For more information on the history of lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson has created this website: lynchinginamerica.eji.org

But its my birthday, Jesus!

This story may sound familiar. She was all of sudden very frightened because her baby boy was on it’s way under fairly frightening circumstances. I’m sure she must have been thinking, “This is not how I wanted it to be.” There had to be an overall sense that she wasn’t ready. Mostly because the doctors had projected this child, her second and first boy in the family, to come over a month later on Valentine’s Day. Just as the first Christmas was a miraculous intervention, on this Christmas in 1984, God had other plans.

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This isn’t the story of Jesus, though it involves him, this is my story. The story of a Christmas baby that came unexpectedly. This is also a story of what it means to have the whole world celebrate on your birthday, and, in the midst of being lost in the shuffle, what it is I’ve come to celebrate.

I was premature by several weeks. As the legend goes, my family was out enjoying the festivities of Christmas Eve with our family down the street from the house I grew up in. Now some would call my mother clumsy. I tend to think she is just always going full throttle into the adventures of life with little regard for her own safety. On this night, well before my due date, she went a little too full throttle down the icy steps of my granny’s house, she fell, and my labor had begun.

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I can’t imagine what was going through my mother’s mind as they rushed to the hospital. Was her baby going to be okay? Was she ready for this child she didn’t expect? Had her actions placed her new baby in danger? I’m wondering if similar questions entered Mary’s mind on that first Christmas as well. Soon Cindy Moore’s relatively normal-sized baby (imagine how big my head would have been had I gone full term) was born and in good health. Her questions were answered but this day left me with one big question I ask every year.

Growing up, even though our births were tied together, I had not tied my life to Jesus. So the holiday was rarely about him, but Christmas was still a fun time of family togetherness. Thankfully, my parents did a great job of making my birthday as special as it could be on a really haphazard day. They always had a special gift set aside from the others. Then, at a certain point during the day we would stop celebrating Christmas and start with the singing, the candles, and the cake.

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Sometime in college, though, I decided to follow Jesus and my birthday took on a whole new meaning. Not only that, but now I work for the church so my birthday will never be a day off. As I watch folks with those cushy summer birthdays celebrate the growing trends of birth weeks or birth months, I’ve come to despise my birthday as a day that will never be about me.

Back to that one question I ask every year…why was I born on Christmas? Why am I birthday buddies with Jesus? Why in the world would God tie a day that is supposed to be about me to a day where everyone in the world has a million other things on their minds? Why, on a day when all I want to do is hang out with my friends at Chuck E. Cheese, is it impossible to hang out with anyone anywhere? So what exactly does this Christmas baby have to celebrate during the chaos of the holidays? Let me tell you.

christmas-baby-7Neither of my parents had particularly charmed lives. Our family history is filled with stories of abuse, family turmoil, and tragic death. Any one of those things can end up defining you for a life time. Our legacies can be marked by the worst moments of our lives, the greatest examples that we indeed live in a fallen world. These moments cause great division and pain, they create the need for reconciliation.

For some reason neither of my parents threw in the towel. My mother worked for decades to make the world better for children who were dealt a similarly bad hand in life. My father lived his life with a hope that if he worked hard enough his family’s lives would be better too. God is in the business of breaking the chains of generational sin and this is the fundamental hope that comes with children.

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Each birth marks the arrival of a brand new reconciler. This new life brings with it the hope and promise of two parents that the next generations will not be subject to the pain and oppression of the last. God appeared to his people many times but often in ways that were terrifying and might seem distant (pillars of fire and smoke). On Christmas, God appeared to his people as a child. Jesus came in the most relatable form to show us that pain, abuse, even death would not define us. My parents have lived their lives with a similar hope, that our story will be defined by something bigger and better than they could ever imagine.

My wife can tell you that I still succumb to the occasional birthday meltdown, but over the years of reflecting on this story of great hope and reconciliation I’ve come to see a bigger picture. My birthday isn’t about me…its actually about the hope of the entire world. My sisters and I are the next chapter in the stories of Cindy and Bob Moore…who were the next chapters in the stories of their parents.

Each new chapter brings new mercies and new grace. From an overwhelmed, shamed, teenaged mother among the filth of a stable to a shivering, frightened, bruised Mrs. Moore, Christmas is about the lengths and the depths God will go to bring peace and reconciliation to creation. He brought both Jesus and I safely into the world under unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. But of course he did, we have a lot of work to do together and that is definitely worth celebrating.

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